Athletes and NBC Discover the Olympic Power of Twitter

The 2012 London Olympics, which NBC paid $1.18 billion to televise, is already providing PR experts with plenty of learning material, especially in regard to Twitter.

Just ask Hope Solo’s publicist. Ms. Solo has managed to elevate her personal brand into the national conversation by lambasting commentator and U.S. women’s soccer icon Brandi Chastain. Though this cyber confrontation may prove for the Olympics, women’s soccer and NBC’s ratings there is no such thing as bad publicity, it also irked many fans already fed up with the lack of civility, selflessness and sportsmanship in so many other sports.

If customers are dissatisfied with services they won’t scroll to the bottom of a brand’s website to find a customer complaint phone number where they’ll be put on hold for 45 minutes. They’ll simply tweet their frustrations to the masses. This development is nothing new to digitally savvy brands, however, managing expectations can prove difficult, particularly when customer angst is the result of unavoidable technical glitches, or ever worse, their own ineptitude or inferior hardware.

Take this quote from an article in The New York Times about customers upset over interruptions with live streamed Olympic events, “NBC did nothing to caution fans that any of these problems might arise or that they might have an imperfect experience. Those helpful advisories should have been posted on next to where users sign in to access video. Perhaps nobody should have anticipated perfection; this is a huge undertaking that probably could not have been tested by millions of users to mimic the actual experience once the Games began.”

There is no anger like that of an upset sport’s fan, especially one who wasn’t simply upset by the final score, but one who wasn’t able to see the results at all. Those watching events on went ballistic on Twitter, exorcising their frustrations and angst at NBC through a barrage of caustic tweets. Once these tweeters find each other and generate some traction online and coalesce, they create a cyber inertia that wields influence and power to the point where not only consumers but publications such as The New York Times and blogs like PRNewser pay attention.

Many companies and celebrities, of course, embrace Twitter because of the promotional power it harnesses, but they must also respect its entire power because it flows in all directions, including those directions that run against their own interests.

As a PR professional, how would you advise brands and personalities in navigating such seething tides of negative publicity on Twitter?